This Fall, data provided by the National Student Clearinghouse continued to document the decline in college attendance that has been fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently, more young people are choosing to work and are either temporarily or permanently putting off going to college. The overall undergraduate drop-off in Fall 2021 was 4.4 percent, and enrollment of freshman students is down over 13 percent, with an even bigger decline of freshman enrollment concentrated in community colleges (down 18 percent). 
Reflecting on this data, reporters and analysts have postulated that these lower college enrollments will make the future talent shortage even more intense.
While I don’t consider college enrollment my area of expertise, this is clearly a serious issue that reflects how incredibly disruptive COVID has been to all aspects of society and life. Still, I think it’s premature to say everything about this is bad – particularly if we take the long view and try to account for the unknowns of human decision-making.
As background, the National Student Clearinghouse for years has been showing how much slippage there already was in our postsecondary system. Based on its data, we know that on average, about 70 percent of a high school graduating class enrolls in postsecondary during the first two years after high school graduation; however, among all young adults ages 25-64, we know that just about 52 percent have completed a degree or postsecondary credential.
While overall attainment has been rising, we know that many young adults (30 percent) never attempt postsecondary education, and about 20 percent of those who do enroll drift out or drop out over time.
In my view, students drifting and dropping out is the REAL tragedy, and is ultimately more consequential to the talent pipeline than the COVID-induced fall-off in first-time enrollments. It’s also the more systemic issue that deserves continued attention, beyond the disruption in enrollments caused by a world-wide pandemic.
Here are some questions that occur to me.
- Could it be that the most marginal students, the ones who were already very likely to drop out of postsecondary, are more likely the ones who are deferring or delaying college attendance? If this is true, then the drop in first-time enrollments does not mean that the overall pipeline of graduates will be that much smaller in future years.
I know there is a serious equity issue here and that poorer and minority students are less likely to be enrolling right now. But the equity issue was already serious in that these were also the students who were dropping and drifting out in higher percentages than the overall population.
- Could it be that the potential students who are waiting it out on college might actually be taking more time to think about career options, while getting some workplace experience? If this is the case, perhaps if they do enroll in the future, they will be more mature and engaged students.
Remember the GI-Bill generation of college students? These were war veterans who had enlisted at 18 or 19 years of age, traveled the country and the world, and lived through great peril and suffering. When they started college in their early to mid 20s, they knew and valued the opportunity for getting a higher education. Maybe today’s young people will also return to postsecondary education with greater commitment and fortitude.
- Could it be that the drop in enrollments will change the ways that colleges relate to the students who do enroll? Will this drop in undergraduate enrollments create a stronger incentive for two-year and four-year colleges to try to keep the students they do have, implementing personalization of services and student supports that can help improve student success and program completion?
So, perhaps these drops in first-time enrollments are not as bad in the long term as we fear.
It certainly does remind those of us working in the K-12 side of education how important our work is. We know from survey data that at least half of graduating seniors have no clear idea about their own career aptitudes, a career interest, or how to act on a career interest. So, it is incumbent of those of us working in K-12 to continue our work to embed Career Connected Learning strategies throughout our schools. This will allow an increasing number of students to graduate with purpose and a clear sense of the right NEXT STEP for them (and for most of them, that next step will involve postsecondary education and training).
By the way, please let me know of postsecondary institutions that are seeing results with their retention and completion strategies. I want to know about and promote those promising practices.
 National Student Clearinghouse, https://www.studentclearinghouse.org/blog/fall-2020-undergraduate-enrollment-down-4-4-graduate-enrollment-up-2-9/
 Lumina Foundation. A Stronger Nation progress report. https://luminafoundation.org/stronger-nation/report/2021/#/progress
 YouthTruth (2015), Less than half of U.S. high school students nationwide feel prepared for college and career, YouthTruth finds, Press Release: July 30, 2015, YouthTruth, San Francisco, California. Retrieved from: http://www.youthtruthsurvey.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/YT-College-Career-Readiness.pdf
Hans Meeder is President of the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T) (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.